Better known for celebrities and sunshine, California does snow, too - in record-breaking, thrill-making amounts. Our expert is on the slopes and has the lowdown.
As I stand on the frozen jetty, ice crunching beneath my bare feet, I stare into the inky blackness of Lake Tahoe below and ask myself the obvious question: Who thought this was a good idea?
Just as I contemplate the life choices that led me to this point, the count begins and it's too late to back out: Three, two, one... and we plunge into the near-freezing water below.
The cold hits me like an electric shock and soon I'm gasping for breath as I shoot up the ladder faster than a goanna up a gumtree.
There's something special about ski trips that makes silly ideas like diving into freezing lakes in the middle of the night seem like a great plan. And this is one very special ski trip indeed.
We've come to the Sierra Nevada mountains of California in the most extraordinary year in decades. Across the west of America, all-time record snowfalls have been burying entire towns as storm after storm pummels the mountains.
With the 2022-23 season delivering nearly double the average precipitation levels, resorts have been posting eye-popping images of ski lifts buried up to their cables, highways closed and roads turned into icy walled canyons as snowploughs work desperately to keep towns from being cut off. It's been a fine line oscillating between the best season the mountains have ever seen and a near natural disaster.
To get an idea of just how much snow those areas were dealing with, imagine for a moment enough to bury a standard single-storey house all the way up to the gutters. Now multiply that amount of snow by six.
On March 30, Mammoth Mountain, the highest resort in the state, announced it had surpassed its previous record snow depth of 668 inches (around 17 metres), set in the 2010-11 season. Many resorts reported the deepest snow in 40 years, with some surpassing levels set in the 1950s when official records began.
Some, including Mammoth, stayed open well into summer and for skiers lucky enough to make it stateside it was a non-stop bonanza of waist-deep powder-surfing, thigh-melting thrills. In the 2023-24 season that's about to begin, forecasters are predicting another above-average season for California. Here's the sort of adventure you can expect.
I had spent the days leading up to our departure from Australia doom-scrolling US weather reports. Unrelenting storms, resorts unable to open, blocked roads and chaos at airports. In the end, it was fog in Sydney that nearly put an end to my adventure before it had even properly begun.
A delayed flight and missed connection kicked off a domino-like frenzy of rebooking, sprinting through departure lounges, pleading with travel agents and on-the-fly changes of flights, airlines and destinations (sometimes while airborne) as I scrambled to play international catch-up to my travel companions.
An exhausting 20-odd hours later I finally arrived at Reno-Tahoe International Airport. Bleary eyed, I shuffled past the poker machines and gaming areas of the arrival hall (quietly wondering if I was the only person who found this weird) to the carpark where the stretch limos waited to whisk off tourists to one of the gleaming mirrored casinos nearby.
As my transfer bus pulled up I looked up and saw a break in the clouds as the sun emerged briefly. Maybe, just maybe, it was going to work out after all.
Our skiing odyssey takes us first to Palisades Tahoe, one of the region's leading ski resorts, boasting epic steep chutes and jaw-dropping vistas.
In 2021 the resort, formally known as Squaw Valley, made the decision to change its name and move away from a term that has become increasingly derogatory and offensive to the indigenous people and in particular the Washoe tribe local to the area.
It's still a work in progress as the rebranding effort continues and the resort has had to wear some pushback from skiers and sectors of the community unhappy with the change.
But one part of its history that remains on proud display is its Olympic heritage. In 1960 the winter Olympics came to the valley, putting the area firmly on the map. Today, the Olympic rings greet visitors as they arrive and signs of that proud past are on display everywhere.
At the top of the resort at High Camp a small museum showcases a selection of 1960 team uniforms, memorabilia and the original medal podium makes for a popular prop for cheesy selfies.
On our way up in the huge bus-sized aerial tram to visit the museum, our guide Maddy points out the craggy outcrops at the top of the legendary KT-22 lift.
"When there's a powder day, the best skiers race to get there for the first runs. You can watch them from the lift, lining up on the edge as they throw backflips and all kinds of crazy moves off there - it's on my bucket list," confesses Maddy.
Forget double black diamonds, here signs warn of "cliffs" and "'expert only". One run, Chute 75, requires skiers to dive off its vertical, corniced entrance and then into a narrow chasm while navigating 50-degree slopes. I marvel at the spectacle from the safety of my gondola, content to leave that one to our guide.
Thankfully, from the top there are plenty of less extreme ways down. The resort is spread across eight peaks ranging from the extreme to mild, with lots of open bowls and gentle rolling groomed runs, perfect for learners and intermediates.
Unlike other resorts, those new to skiing or boarding aren't confined to the bottom of the hill. There's a good selection of green and blue (beginner and intermediate) runs starting from the mid-station, allowing those still finding their feet to enjoy some of the epic views usually reserved for intermediate and advanced riders only.
The recently completed Base to Base gondola at Palisades Tahoe has linked two ski resorts, making what used to require a bus transfer an easy 16-minute, 3.8-kilometre ride from the main village over to the Alpine side of the resort.
Here, the towering peaks and huge runs give way to a very different, blue-run kind of vibe. As we come to the top of our first lift at Alpine, towering fir trees line our path. We glide silently through the forest until suddenly the view opens up to a sweeping panorama of Lake Tahoe in the distance. We pause for a moment just drinking it in and thinking how lucky we've been to be blessed with such incredible conditions in such an amazing place.
Emboldened by our glorious first day at Palisades, we're eager for more. Our hotel at Everline Resort and Spa is separated from the village by a short drive, but a chairlift right on the doorstep allows for ski-in ski-out access.
Soon we're back on the slopes as the snowy conditions make a comeback. Fat, lazy flakes cover our tracks all morning, and while the visibility of the previous day is gone, fresh trails on every run make for a different kind of treat.
We swoop, dive and holler through the trees, pushing ourselves on every run until the inevitable happens. I catch an edge as I stray too far into a powdery stash and suddenly I'm cartwheeling down the hill, skis, stocks, goggles and other paraphernalia flying off in every direction with centrifugal force. Fortunately, the powder is forgiving and I escape with only my pride injured.
I arrive at the bottom of the run plastered in clumps of snow, much to the amusement of my waiting group. As I explain how I got myself into my current state, Patrick, a local who's been showing us around for the morning, pipes up, "We call that, 'having a yard sale'."
Luck pushed far enough for one day, we head back down the resort run to our hotel where we unclip, hand our skis in at the storage room and stroll over to the outdoor bar for a hot cider in front of a roaring fire. It's probably around this point, at the bottom of our second drink, that plans for that post-dinner icy plunge started to form.
As we reluctantly bid farewell to an incredible couple of days, we hit Route 395 and head for our next destination, Mammoth Lakes. We've had to go the long way around due to road closures, and as we pull off the highway towards town, a long line of dump trucks filled with snow meets us coming the other way. Perplexed by the unusual sight, we soon discover their plight.
We arrive to find nearly every street in the village carved out of solid snow, like a map drawn with a finger in wet sand.
Walls of ice higher than two-storey balconies appear, streetlight posts on the side of the road are buried up to their bulbs and our neighbour's house is completely entombed in an icy shell. Across the road a giant cornice hangs from a third-storey roof, threatening to collapse and block the street below.
With so much snow to clear to keep the town from becoming completely cut off, a small army of articulated front-end loaders works frantically, scooping snow into the waiting trucks to cart back down the road and out of the village.
Mammoth more than lives up to its name. As well as being huge, boasting 175 trails and 25 lifts, Mammoth is known for having some of the best, most reliable snowfall of any resort in the area, due to two-thirds of its terrain facing north to catch the prevailing winter storms and a higher elevation, topping out at a whopping 3369 metres.
Like Palisades, Mammoth is one of the more than 50 resorts worldwide covered by the Ikon pass. That pass includes resorts across not only the US and Canada but also Europe, South America and, closer to home, Thredbo and Mount Buller.
As we discover, its benefits extend a lot further than just access to the ski slopes. Businesses across the village in Mammoth offer discounts on everything from food and coffee to clothing and extra tickets for friends and family.
After ogling the walls of ice in town, we jump on the gondola that takes skiers right from the heart of the village to Canyon Lodge, the base station for the ski slopes, where our guide for the day, Miles, points to a series of round lumps in the snow below.
"That's holiday homes under there, some of them are owned by people who don't come up often, and they haven't been here keeping it clear," he says, as we look again and realise some of the lumps actually have driveways and parts of roofs or balconies poking out.
Throughout the village authorities have had to deal with a series of roof collapses, and we arrive home one afternoon to find a rescue crew dealing with an emergency at the other end of our street. Across the town, workers in harness and ropes chip away at the huge pillows of powder bearing down on the buildings below.
At the base station, we jump on the canyon express lift which whisks us away from the hubbub and into the middle section of the mountain.
From here, it's a choose-your-own adventure, and as we pause to work out where to explore first, I glance over at a higher chairlift disappearing into the clouds. With such a massive mountain, it's hard to know just how much further up it goes, but with the weather closing in, we confine ourselves to the middle reaches. Here, there are still plenty of open groomed runs to choose from, but Miles is keen to show us a hidden gem, so we make our way over to chair 12 on the far boundary of the resort.
As we slide off the old-school two-person lift, Miles launches down the groomed slope in front of us before veering suddenly and disappearing into the trees. We follow his lead as the snow gets lighter and lighter, until I lose sight of my bindings in the powder. Soon I'm floating and I lean back on my heels, carefully steering clear of the tree wells - deep pockets of loose snow I've heard can swallow and trap an unwary skier - before, all too soon, we pop back out on the groomed run at the bottom, grins from ear to ear.
Again and again we ride the rickety old chair until the weather and our burning legs finally shut us down.
The next day I stuff a bagel into my ski jacket and head back up the gondola to find clear skies. After a couple of warm-up laps and with the help of an enthusiastic local in the gondola, I convince my ski buddies to head to the upper part of the mountain.
From the summit, views stretch in every direction as far as the eye can see, and icicles protruding horizontally out of the weather station's masts hint at the ferocity of conditions just days before. Up high, the trees are completely encased in ice and snow, making for eerie sculptures as we consider which of the near-vertical black runs we want to drop in on.
We find one of the less terrifying routes down, and by the time we get to the bottom we're all exhausted.
We arrive back at Canyon Lodge to find it's party time, with a onesie-wearing DJ cranking out tunes to a heaving crowd as the line for the bar snakes back around the building. Everyone's in a great mood and it's easy to see why, even the exhausted lift staff seem to have a spring in their step thanks to the break in the weather.
It's the perfect way to celebrate the end to an incredible few days experiencing some of the best skiing California has to offer in what will go down as one of the most epic snow seasons in decades.
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Getting there: There are several ways to get to both Palisades Tahoe and Mammoth, with both accessible by hire car from Los Angeles or San Francisco. Reno-Tahoe international airport is a close jumping off point for Palisades, with the North Lake Tahoe Express bus taking just under an hour from the airport to your hotel door. For Mammoth one of the best options is to fly directly into Mammoth Yosemite Airport, a half-hour drive from the resort village. Advanced Air offers a public charter flight service from Los Angeles via Hollywood Burbank Airport or Hawthorne Municipal Airport, see advancedairlines.com
Stating there: At Palisades Tahoe, the family-friendly Everline Resort and Spa offers ski-in/ski-out access to the mountain and 405 luxury rooms and suites. Rooms from about $US242 ($382) a night, see hyatt.com. At Mammoth Mountain, the newly constructed Hillside Highlands three bedroom townhouses are adjacent to The Village at Mammoth. Rates from about $US1000 a night, see mammothmountain.com
Skiing there: The Ikon Pass provides access to more than 50 ski destinations in 11 countries, and starts at $US929 for the base pass, see Ikonpass.com
The writer travelled as a guest of the Ikon Pass, Palisades Tahoe and Mammoth Mountain.